A Washington-based group on Monday filed a complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether Focus on the Family should lose its tax-exempt status, because its founder, James Dobson, endorsed candidates for office.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics said Dobson, though barred from electioneering by IRS regulations governing tax-exempt non-profits, endorsed several candidates for office in 2004, well before forming a separate 501(c)(4) organization, Focus on the Family Action, in order to legally conduct political activity.
“Mr. Dobson’s egregious violations of IRS code demand an investigation into his improper activities that break both the spirit and the letter of IRS law,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW said in a news release.
Candidates endorsed by Dobson include Republican Representative Patrick J. Toomey in his race for Senate in Pennsylvania, North Carolina Republican candidate Pat Ballentine for governor and Oklahoma Republican candidate Tom Coburn for Senate.
Further, according to the complaint, Dobson’s written endorsement of President George Bush was widely circulated among delegates at the 2004 Republican National Convention. It was prepared in his capacity as founder of Focus on the Family.
After President Bush was elected for a second term, Tom Minnery, vice president of Focus on the Family, took credit for the victory, claiming that Focus on the Family and James Dobson had helped reelect Bush.
Dobson himself, when asked on CNN whether he could accept some of the credit for the President’s reelection, responded, “Well, we worked pretty hard at it.”
Dobson reportedly received weekly telephone calls from the White House during Bush’s re-election campaign and has announced plans, with other groups, to jointly interview and maybe endorse Republican contenders for the White House in 2008.
“In some of these instances, Mr. Dobson has stated that he was acting as a private individual,” the complaint says in part. “But an examination of all the facts and circumstances surrounding his multiple endorsements reveals that despite Mr. Dobson’s use of these ‘magic words,’ he was, in truth, capitalizing on his identification with Focus on the Family. Indeed, at times he used Focus on the Family resources for his political activities, giving the understandable perception that he was acting as chairman and founder of Focus on the Family.”
“Based on the totality of the facts and circumstances described herein, CREW respectfully requests that the IRS conduct a full-scale investigation to determine whether there are other instances where Focus on the Family and James Dobson, in his role as chairman of the organization, engaged in prohibited electioneering,” the complaint reads in part.
“We further request that based on the known instances where Focus on the Family has engaged in prohibited electioneering, the IRS revoke the organization’s tax exempt status, impose all applicable fines and penalties, and pursue all other available civil and criminal remedies against those involved in the foregoing transactions.”
A Focus on the Family attorney said the conservative Christian group, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., has complied fully with the tax code.
“Dr. Dobson has not used assets of Focus on the Family in any way” for political activities, attorney James Bopp said in Scripps Howard News Service.
“Anyone can send a letter to the IRS,” he said. “Anyone can send out a press release about the letter. And that means nothing to the IRS.”
But the complaint comes amid reports that the IRS last year began investigating the political activities of more than 100 churches, charities and other tax-exempt groups to see whether they have violated the 50-year-old provision barring them from endorsing political candidates.
The IRS refuses to say which groups its is targeting, but a liberal church in California last month said it had been warned it might lose its tax-exempt status because of an anti-war sermon by a guest preacher in 2004.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State head Barry Lynn said while he understood why the IRS might consider the sermon at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., to be electioneering, the agency must be impartial in enforcing the law.
There is no indication, for example, that the IRS took the same view after AU complained about a July 4, 2004, service at First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., when Pastor Ronnie Floyd preached on successes of President Bush, while contrasting him with Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry.
“The IRS has established a track record of scrutinizing organizations, in particular liberal ones, that have purportedly violated electioneering regulations,” Sloan said. “We hope that the IRS will fully investigate Focus on the Family activities as vigorously as it has targeted those of progressive organizations.”
According to its Web site, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics targets government officials “who sacrifice the common good to special interests” and helps Americans use litigation “to shine a light on those who betray the public trust.”
The group seeks to balance right-wing groups using legal means to influence public policy, such as the Judicial Watch and the Rutherford Institute. While there are non-partisan groups that address public integrity–including Common Cause, the Center for Public Integrity and Democracy 21–they typically focus on research and legislation, not litigation.
“The mainstream needs a parallel to the conservative groups mentioned above,” the Web site says. “CREW will fill that niche.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.